Record Bin: The soft rock illumination of Bread’s “Guitar Man”

Authored By pitulah

As the ’60s came to a close and the ’70s were just beginning to find their footing, the musical landscape began a shift away from the psych-indebted sounds of the previous decade to something more fluid and melodic-something less kaleidoscopic in its execution and more based around a series of precise melodies and hook-driven rhythms. It was the beginning of modern pop/rock production. And while some may have seen that as a regression, it was, in actuality, the next logical step in the evolution of mainstream music. And there were many bands more than willing to explore these gentle pop/rock territories.

For Los Angeles soft rockers Bread, the decade brought with it some incredible highs and painful lows. Originally formed in 1968, the band then consisted of David Gates, Robb Royer and Jimmy Griffin-a group who had worked together on music from Royer’s previous band, The Pleasure Fair. They signed to Elektra Records the following year after reportedly coming up with their name after getting stuck in traffic behind a Wonder Bread delivery truck. Their first single, “Dismal Day,” was released shortly thereafter in mid-’69 but failed to achieve any sort of appreciable commercial success. Their self-titled debut, which came out later that year, peaked at No. 127 on the Billboard 200 and faded away without making much of an impact.

With the help of session musician Jim Gordon on drums, the band played a few concerts and further refined this soft rock sound that would play such an important part in their later work. When Gordon’s schedule prevented him from playing with the band, they brought on drummer Mike Botts as a permanent replacement. And with Botts on board for their sophomore record, “On the Waters,” Bread was poised to become the go-to soft rock band for those who were looking for something different from what the ’60s had previously offered.

Released in 1970, “On the Waters” was the record that showed critics, fans and the mainstream music junkies that they weren’t simply going to fade away after their lackluster debut. With songs such as “Make It With You” and “Look What You’ve Done,” they made the case for soft rock’s commercial validity-although many critics weren’t too impressed with their gentle melodies and catchy rhythms. But what those critics failed to understand was that the music of Bread wasn’t an alternative to the edgier music that was being released at the time (although I’m not saying that that wasn’t always the case-it just wasn’t the whole picture). Bread wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel-they just knew how to craft a perfect pop song in a way that few other artists were capable of doing at that time. The outright dismissal of the soft rock genre, and Bread in general, by so many people is a shame, as their songs are undiluted examples of what could be done within this genre.

Royer left the band after three records and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Larry Knechtel, who would continue to perform with the band until they disbanded in 1973. But before then, the band recorded what is arguably their greatest record, 1972’s “Guitar Man,” a collection of songs that showcases the band’s innate ability to write perfect melodies and songs that feel intensely personal but still connected with an entire generation of fans. Some would say that they were simply a singles band and that their greatest hits collections are the only records you really need to own. But that attitude is born from the fact that although so many of their singles were monster hits, there’s an assumption that the ones that weren’t released as singles are lesser compositions by comparison.

Admittedly, songs such as “Guitar Man,” “Aubrey” and “Sweet Surrender” were colossal hits and may have overshadowed the rest of the songs, but that in no way means that the others are due any less attention. Just listen to album opener “Welcome to the Music” or “Yours for Life” and you’ll quickly realize that many more songs could have been released as successful singles but weren’t for some unknown reason. Buried beneath all the glossy production and emotional lyricism, the band was writing some unforgettable melodies, and far from being the throwaway band that so many assumed, they were continuing to push the genre forward in ways that wouldn’t be felt or understood until many years later.

“Guitar Man” is a perfect snapshot of the state of pop and rock music in the first few years of the ’70s-it was a decade still in transition and still finding its own voice, but there was much to appreciate and learn. Bread was a product of this transition, as were many bands then. But they seemed to have a far better understanding of what this shift meant in terms of musical relevance than did most of their peers. Like many bands stuck with the “soft rock” label in the ’70s, they were constantly fighting for respect, and their music continues to face stiff opposition when it comes to how modern audiences view their records.

But if you’ll look past the labels and assumptions you might have about them, you’re going to find that these songs have aged incredibly well and are among some of the best songs to come out of the rhythmic realignment that occurred when the idealism of the ’60s gave way to the realities of the ’70s. Many bands were less inclined toward revelatory social statements and more concerned with the craft of creating music. Bread was ahead of the curve and, as a result, able to predict the soft rock movement years before it reached its full mainstream resolution. And it was through albums like “Guitar Man” that they were able to impact countless musicians and listeners with their earnest, affecting tales of emotional inclusivity. Find this record, listen to it, and then tell me how disposable it really is. Go on-I’ll be waiting right here. 

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.